Benefits and Compensation, HR Management & Compliance

Case Study: When Discussing Accommodations, Follow Interactive Process

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Massachusetts General Law Chapter 151B (Chapter 151B) both require employers to provide reasonable accommodations absent undue hardship to employees and to engage in an interactive dialogue with those who need a reasonable accommodation. Employers that fail to do so face legal liability. The recent jury verdict in Menninger v. PPD Development, L.P., Civ. Action No. 19-cv-11441 (D. Mass 2023) serves as an important reminder for employers. 

Menninger’s Alleged Disability

In 2023, a jury awarded PPD Development’s former employee Lisa Menninger $24 million in a suit alleging disability discrimination because of the employer’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations. Although the basis for the jury’s decision is difficult to speculate, the circumstances throughout the case should give employers good cause to evaluate the process by which they request, obtain, evaluate, and decide on requests for accommodation.

PPD filed an appeal with the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Here’s how it got there.

Menninger was hired by PPD in 2015 to lead its laboratory services. Two years later, that role was expanded to include additional client visits and presentations. She alleged she couldn’t take on these social obligations because of an anxiety disorder. To support this, she gave the company a note from her physician stating the additional tasks made it “substantially more difficult, if not impossible, for Lisa to perform her job.”

The Interactive Process

Upon receiving this note, PPD reviewed Menninger’s position and determined she performed tasks falling into one of five categories: internal presentations and meetings with various stakeholders and employees, client bid defenses and issue resolution, technical sale presentations, social interactions with clients, and travel.

Based on this list, Menninger and her doctor made a list of requested accommodations, including that she be provided with a reader to present to a group or that prerecorded audio/video be played at the meeting, with questions to be handled via email; that she be allowed to handle bid defenses and issue resolution matters via email or text or remove videoconferences with one to two people only; that a “surrogate” attend client meetings and that she be permitted to problem-solve if the issues were communicated to her a few days before the client meeting; that she be permitted to provide information in written form through a reader instead of a sales presentation; that a “surrogate” attend all client social functions on her behalf; and that she be allowed to travel to the Belgium laboratory rather than the U.S. laboratories.

PPD evaluated the requests and determined that most couldn’t be made, as the tasks were essential functions of the position and central to the business’s needs. However, it was willing to provide a reader to present to the group during meetings and reduce travel expectations in half to 15%.

After receiving this response, Menninger challenged the three categories for which PPD denied accommodation. After some back and forth, she stated she was “‘capable of performing all of [her] responsibilities with or without accommodation.’ . . . That said, she suggested they could ‘table this discussion until a particular task arises’ because there seemed to be no upcoming events or activities that would implicate her disability.” Around the same time, PPD inquired as to whether she would be interested in an exit package.

Circumstances Leading to Leave and Discharge

Over the next few months, Menninger complained that she felt targeted because of her disability. PPD investigated and found no evidence to support her allegation. Shortly thereafter, she left on immediate medical leave and remained out for eight months, six of which were fully paid. When she didn’t return to work, PPD ended her employment, and suit followed.

One Company’s Appeal Is Everyone’s Lesson

The case went to trial in 2023, and a jury found for Menninger, awarding her a verdict of $24 million ($1.565 million in back pay, $5.465 million in front pay, $5 million for past emotional distress, $2 million for future emotional distress, and $10 million in punitive damages). 

Thereafter, PPD filed an appeal. An appeal of a verdict that large, especially for an employer that engaged in the interactive process, made accommodations, and feels strongly that it couldn’t provide the accommodations because the tasks were essential to the job and the business, is no surprise. But what should employers be thinking about while these litigants fight it out in round two?

First, employers need to take disabilities, including those associated with mental health, seriously. It’s often difficult for employees to discuss details surrounding their mental health, as they may fear being dismissed or stigmatized. When employees initiate those conversations, they should be met with respect, and the employer should engage in the same process as they would for other disabilities.

Second, when requests for accommodations are made, employers must engage in an interactive process. The major lesson from the Menninger case is the labor that’s involved in this process. Substantive discussions are important to understand the accommodations that are being requested and, if applicable, to explain the reason(s) the accommodations can’t be met. 

Having detailed job descriptions for all positions will make this process much easier, as it provides common ground for both the employer and the employee to reference when evaluating the accommodations.


Although the employer in this case lost at trial, it was able to mount a substantive response to the former employee’s allegations because it had policies in place and had documented the engagement with the employee during the interactive process. It’s important to remember that proper preparation for all what-ifs is always good practice. And if you’re struggling with how to respond to requests for accommodations, you should discuss the matter with employment counsel.

Maureen James is an attorney at Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., and can be reached at

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